Supporting student mental health when school returns

This has been a challenging year for students, marked by widespread uncertainty, isolation from friends and anxiety about their own health and that of their family, says Charlotte Aynsley, safeguarding advisor at Impero Software. Unsurprisingly, these stresses have caused an increased incidence of mental health issues that may cause challenges as school resumes in September.

In recent history, the government has an imperfect record on mental health. In 2015, for instance, a promising programme called the Blueprint for Counselling and Schools saw its funding cut, and the DfE’s mental health guidelines haven’t been updated since 2018.  Charlotte Aynsley, safeguarding advisor at Impero, discusses child mental health

However, this crisis appears to have moved the government to act. In August, the government announced the creation of an £8 million project called the Wellbeing for Education Return programme. This is certainly a welcome start, but actually comes to less than £250 per school. This simply isn’t enough to address this once-in-a-lifetime crisis.

In the meantime, the DfE has produced ‘Guidance for Full Opening: Schools,’ an overarching document which points schools toward resources for a range of needs, including mental health. The guidance suggests, for example, that teachers access online material including a new module on teaching mental wellbeing on, revisions to the Healthy Child Programme, a joint DfE-Public Health England webinar, and courses and information on the SEND gateway. The guidance also points to MindEd, a company offering free courses to teachers. In terms of support for school staff, the government suggests the Education Support Partnership.

Teachers excel at identifying when students need help, but in September they will need to identify new concerns and support an unprecedented number of students who will have been affected by the recent events. Some students, sadly, will have experienced bereavement and may still be coming to terms with life without a loved one, while others – may have developed new anxieties. Many will feel uneasy with the uncertainties that we now face and some will be affected by lack of contact with friends and the GCSE results chaos. 

Cyberbullying affected mental health over lockdown

The role of the internet is more prominent than ever for students, and teachers must be prepared to understand some of the new online issues and risks.  Earlier this year, according to experts we interviewed – there was a range of issues including, cyberbullying which meant excluding students from online meetups on the apps like Houseparty.

Teachers must also be prepared to address the BLM movement, answer questions and potentially identify bullying. The NSPCC offers resources for teachers on identifying and addressing racial bullying.

Beyond the government’s recommended resources, schools can also use free material from the NSPCC, Childline, Young Minds, and Heads Together to offer effective, up to date mental health education. In addition, Impero has built a keyword library into its monitoring software for terms specifically related to potential mental health issues and online threats, and the system automatically flags these to the school’s administrator whenever a student enters them. The safeguarding software is completely free for all schools.

Impero recently produced a whitepaper in collaboration with Mental Health America offering expert advice for teachers on addressing stress and loneliness. The whitepaper, which is available online, calls for teachers to encourage students to be kind to themselves, cry if they need to, maintain a healthy diet, and reach out for help if they feel they need it.

While the return to school will be positive, it will also be challenging and different students will experience it differently. Teachers have done an incredible job doing all that they can over the last several months. But isolation, anxiety and stress will have undoubtedly affected students, and teachers will have to deal with more safeguarding concerns than ever before. However, by acknowledging the challenge and working to get students the support they need, teachers will lead the way in getting them back on the right track.